With Albuquerque as the setting, Alan Arkin as the rascally grandpa, and a happy atmospheric condition in the title, the makers of Sunshine Cleaning aren't exactly subtle about their recycled ideas… er, reconstituted artistic influences. And just in case a potential moviegoer doesn’t make the connection, this peachcolored comedy about a wacky family who shove their sadness into a bulging closet is being marketed as ''from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine'' All that's missing from the formula is a Volkswagen Microbus.
But wait! Soon enough, Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams), a single mother scrounging for income in bad-economy New Mexico, picks up a reasonable automotive facsimile a junker van. The wheels, see, are necessary for Rose’s new specialty business in crime-scene cleanup and biohazard disposal. The learning curve, she figures, can't be that steep; she already works as a housecleaner, sometimes vacuuming the plush carpets of women she went to high school with. In search of a partner, Rose ropes in her younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), who's an even less functional grown-up. We know Norah is a bad girl because she wears raccoon eye-shadow and smokes. We don’t yet know why she’s so blue, but then, it took a while for Steve Carell, as Little Miss Sunshine’s droll, suicidal uncle, to share his pain. So hang on.
Now all that's missing is an adorable little wise-eyed kid who has a special relationship with Gramps. But wait! Rose's inquisitive son, Oscar (pint-size TV pro Jason Spevack), is a bright boy so bored in his local elementary school that he makes mischief. That's probably just as well, since the need to transfer Oscar to a private school is what awakens Rose's entrepreneurial spirit in the first place. Soon, this thirtysomething underachiever whose glory days peaked when she was a high school cheerleader is zipping around Albuquerque, cheerily mopping up blood and brains and, along the way, finding a new sense of self-worth. Don't ask why a woman who looks as radiant and charismatic as Amy Adams thinks scrubbing bathtubs is her only career path after all, Jennifer Aniston wielded a mop in Friends With Money, and Jennifer Lopez cleaned hotel sinks in Maid in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, Oscar gets to spend quality out-of-school time with Arkin's Gramps, a generic failed dreamer with a million lousy moneymaking schemes that only somebody in a movie would think up. (At one point the old guy tries to sell a shipment of bad shellfish to an unimpressed restaurateur.) We're eventually told why Norah is so sad— and the backstory is one melodramatic storm cloud too many. At least she gets to hang out for a while with an interesting, equally bruised woman played by 24's always-welcome Mary Lynn Rajskub.
That's the silver lining in this emotionally inconsequential dramedy: Truly lovely performances by Adams and Blunt pierce the thoroughly artificial climate. New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley were lucky to land these two talents when the film went into production back in 2007, just after Blunt broke through in The Devil Wears Prada but long before Adams' Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt. As blooming Rose, Adams taps into a delicate vein of warmth and humor that makes her every reaction fresh; we may not understand why this arbitrarily thwarted character has settled for so little, but we cheer for Adams in the role. (The actor makes a showstopper moment out of Rose's attendance at a shallow classmate's baby shower.) And wielding the attitude of a not-as-tough-as-she-thinks chick, Blunt complements Adams' honeyed energy with her own irresistible, more deadpan vigor. She's a great eye-roller.
One other bright spot: Both Rose and Norah have adult sex lives imperfect, to be sure, but real sex lives all the same. For a time, Rose has a lusty relationship with a married cop (Steve Zahn). Norah, meanwhile, beds a guy who means as little to her as she means to herself. These brief nods to the reality of female sexuality seem almost accidental in an otherwise contrived movie. But I'm grateful for the sky-clearing flashes of insight. B–